Voter Registration Modernization Will Address Congressional Concerns

Republicans and Democrats at a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing were troubled about inaccurate voter rolls and the potential for voter fraud.  But their concerns would be easily assuaged if Congress would approve a national system of voter registration modernization.

June 8, 2012

While the controversial “Fast and Furious” program aimed at curbing the flow of illegal guns between the US and Mexico garnered much attention at yesterday’s House Judiciary Committee hearing, many members focused their questions on one of the Justice Department’s mainstay responsibilities: protecting the rights of voters and ensuring the integrity of elections.

While questioning U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, both Republicans and Democrats voiced a number of concerns about inaccurate voter rolls and the potential for voter fraud.  But their concerns would be easily assuaged if Congress would approve a national system of voter registration modernization.

Rep.  Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) chastised the Attorney General for the Department’s intervention in Florida to block a voter roll purge of alleged non-citizens. Sensenbrenner’s criticism is misplaced; he should have been criticizing the Sunshine State for a decision to remove voters from its registration lists at a time so close to a federal election — an action that violates the National Voter Registration Act. The state’s failure to receive preclearance from the Department of Justice also violates the Voting Rights Act. In addition, as the Brennan Center’s Myrna Pérez has explained recently in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the Florida Secretary of State’s sudden move to purge voters repeats past errors made by the state and highlights the need for effective voter registration systems, including modern, computerized lists.

Later, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.) commended the Department for sending a letter to the Florida Secretary of State to stop the purge and protect eligible voters in his state. He decried the lack of concern for eligible voters — at least one of whom, reports have shown, is a decorated veteran — that are being removed from voter rolls at a staggering rate of inaccuracy. Fortunately, local election officials, many of whom are Republicans, are refusing to complete the illegal purge on the Secretary of State’s behalf.

The hearing continued with Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas), referencing a recent Pew study revealing a high proportion of outdated or otherwise inaccurate voter registration entries in states around the country. Poe used the data as a way to raise fears about the potential for voter fraud, but the problem of voter fraud has been proven to be exceedingly rare. Poe should have been concerned with Pew’s finding that at least 51 million eligible voters remain unregistered. The report’s authors recommend that voter registration systems be upgraded, digitized, and modernized to prevent the need for hasty purges and laws that require IDs not possessed by all voters.

A debate over whether or not it is justifiable to require voters to show ID highlighted the fact that members, and even the Attorney General himself, held misconceptions on the topic. Rep. Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) asked the Attorney General a series of questions suggesting that showing ID is a common requirement in everyday life. He used the example of boarding a plane and, inaccurately, Holder agreed that a person needs a valid photo ID to board a plane. While boarding a plane is qualitatively different than exercising one’s right to vote (one is a privilege; the other, a right), it is also not true that a person must show a photo ID to board a plane — TSA also accepts other means of proving one’s identity, including credit cards, marriage licenses, and social security cards. Despite making this one incorrect statement, Holder affirmed his Department’s commitment to blocking restrictive ID laws that would have a retrogressive effect on minority voters in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

These members’ good-faith concerns about inaccurate voter rolls and the potential for voter fraud have a simple solution that the Brennan Center has championed for years: modernize our voting systems so that rolls are digitized, updated, and accurate. The Voter Empowerment Act, recently introduced in the House, would help solve many of the problems abut which  Committee Members grilled Holder. The bill would continue our country’s trajectory of opening the franchise and making voting accessible, while ensuring the integrity of our elections. And finally, the bill would help Attorney General Holder enforce the law and protect the right to vote.